Saturday, 29 September 2012

Atheism, Theism, and Noetic Structures

A popular claim on the Internet is that atheism is merely a lack of belief in a deity. Furthermore, this lack of belief does not influence or inform other aspects of their lives, and that atheism does not require anything more than lack of belief in a deity. I wanted to explore this issue, since this "argument" is often employed in discussions as a kind of 'gotcha.' For example, when atheists argue that religion is the biggest cause of violence and war, and that Hitler was an atheist, the moment the Christian brings up the example of the atheist states of the 20th century, then you can usually expect this "argument" to be deployed, ultimately de-railing the argument. (As a side note, I may take a look at these named arguments in the future for those interested.) Regardless of the context in which it occurs, this argument tends to surface frequently in online discussions. It is typically invoked as a sort of 'get out of jail free card' whenever an atheist is confronted by inconsistencies in their system of beliefs. I wanted to discuss these issues: the definition of atheism, and the relation to atheism to one's noetic structure, or system of beliefs.

Let's consider the oft-repeated claim that atheism is a 'lack of belief.' As such, you do not need to hold to the position that God does not exist, just as long as you don't hold to the position that God exists. The problem with this, is that this simply does not describe atheism. It describes a position of agnosticism; a withdrawal of judgement on an issue, either through lack of awareness of the topic itself, or lack of data to come to a judgement. As such, babies would be atheists, along with dogs, trees, and rocks. Some people laughably actually accept this reductio of their position by actually claiming that babies are indeed atheists. I find this a very self-defeating move, since they are more or less admitting that no thought whatsoever is necessary to become an atheist, since, according to the argument, we are born atheists. If this is the case, then atheism is a position held not by evidence, or by argument. I find it hard to believe that this is a position that intellectual atheists would want to hold to.

Indeed, it seems as if the sole purpose of such an argument is to get out of actually having to defend the truth of atheism. Whilst we could probably go into the philosophy of language and deconstruct the meaning of the term 'atheism,' it would perhaps be more profitable to consider things in purely logical terms. Both theism and atheism are positions on a topic, namely that of the existence of God. When asked the question: "Does God exist?" then there are three possible answer, yes, no, or I don't know. In other words, theism, atheism, and agnosticism. Moreover, if the question posed is: "do you believe that God exists?" then there are only two possible responses, yes, or no. You could combine views by believing that God exists whilst admitting that you don't know if God exists or not. You can also hold to nuanced positions whereby you believe that God probably exists, or very probably exists, etc. There is, however, no magical position where you actively go around claiming that there is no God, whilst at the same time admitting a position of agnosticism.

This leads me to the subject of the relation of atheism to noetic structures. A noetic structure is simply a person's network of beliefs. Some beliefs will be based upon other beliefs, whereas other beliefs will be foundational or basic beliefs not inferred from other beliefs. Atheism, whether or not it is a basic belief or an inferred belief, it is still a part of the atheist's noetic structure. Furthermore, in order to be rational, our noetic structure must not be incoherent, or contradictory, that is to say that is must not contain any flaws. Thus, if an atheist holds to a position that contradicts or is contradicted by the truth atheism, they are irrational since their noetic structure is flawed. So, when an atheist remarks that something cannot be inferred from their atheism, they are speaking a falsehood.

Of course, ascertaining whether or not a position is incompatible with atheism or not might take a bit of work, but the principle remains. In addition to this, a person who holds to a belief not inferred from their atheism runs the risk of being irrational. Obviously, atheists can come to beliefs regardless and apart from their atheism. But in order to be rational, they need to check to see if the beliefs they arrive at are compatible with their atheism. Of course, it is also true that many atheists have a hard time understanding when a belief they hold to is incompatible with their atheism. The atheist who believes that humanity is special, or that objective moral values and duties exists, does so entirely apart from their atheism. In order to be consistent, they would need to jettison either these beliefs, or their atheism. Many people are so committed to the palpably untrue, however, that they would rather discard true beliefs than a cherished worldview, and so remain irrational. Many politicians are die-hard Keynesians despite the fact Keynesian economics has provably destroyed Western economy.

Thus, to conclude, any singular belief is part of a noetic structure of beliefs that must be coherent, and consistent to be considered rational, and atheism is a belief whether those who hold to it would care to admit it or not. In the end, I doubt whether or not the atheists who make these sorts of argument will ever have the intellectual wherewithal to actually be cognisant of this reality, or ever bother to check the consistency of their noetic structures if they do. At least we can remain sure, however, of their utter irrationality until they do so.

4 comments:

  1. Does 'noetic structure' strictly speaking refer to what you know, rather than to what you simply believe?

    "Many politicians are die-hard Keynesians despite the fact Keynesian economics has provably destroyed Western economy." That's a massive and highly controversial claim, what's it doing lurking here out of context? Just as many libertarians would argue that free markets only fail (and they did fail badly in 2008) because they are not really free enough, many Keynesians would point out that the economic policies of New Labour, for example, contain substantial departures from Keynes thought (particularly getting into debt rather than saving during a boom)and consequentially such governments cannot be considered Keynesian. I could say a lot more about this, but as I said, very out of context.

    I agree with your main argument, but it would have been useful to be more specific about false beliefs that are likely to be held alongside atheism such as scientism and materialism.

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  2. "Does 'noetic structure' strictly speaking refer to what you know, rather than to what you simply believe?"
    Our noetic structure is our structure of beliefs. So, knowledge could be part of it.

    "That's a massive and highly controversial claim, what's it doing lurking here out of context?"
    Not to people who are knowledgable in economics.

    "I agree with your main argument, but it would have been useful to be more specific about false beliefs that are likely to be held alongside atheism such as scientism and materialism."
    Materialism, whilst false, is not incompatible with atheism. Whereas scientism is self-refuting.

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